Friday, June 23, 2017

Respond and Act With Agility

photo by Emilie Reutenauer; permission to reuse under terms of GNU Free Documentation License
and under CreativeCommons

While frequent communication has a vital role in the early identification of problems, coping with unexpected events often demands quick action. Certainly, project managers may need to use creative improvisations to quickly deal with such events. In fact, Brian Muirhead, who was responsible for the development and launch of the Mars Pathfinder flight system, had this to say: “Everybody understands the need for a plan…. But in a world of Faster, Better, Cheaper, improvising should be seen as an inseparable part of planning, the other half of a complete process.1" However, most unexpected events faced by today’s project managers are not associated with extreme contexts and constraints requiring excessive improvisation (for more on the importance of improvisation, see our blog story from September 2014. What they do require are immediate and agile responses.

During our consulting work with numerous construction project managers, we watched them repetitively respond with agility and take immediate actions to cope with unexpected events that frequently plagued their projects. Here are four brief examples:

The blackout curtains to be installed in a large hospital were supposed to hang somewhere between 1/16" and 1/4" off the floor. In several rooms, the curtains were not meeting the requirement because the floor was not level. After discussing the problem with the project's carpenter, the project manager decided that the inconsistent curtain height could be compensated for by using metal beaded chains and connectors. After receiving approval from the client, the project manager made a quick trip to the local retail store and purchased the parts needed to complete the fix. The issue was resolved in less than four hours.

The steel supplier fabricated the support steel for some air-handling units using outdated drawings. The steel arrived on-site before the mistake was caught. The project manager was left with two choices: Send it back and have the supplier fix the mistake (at no cost), or have the team members fix it in the field. The project manager, along with his superintendent, decided that even though fixing the mistake on-site would cost the team a few hours of extra labor, it was preferable to waiting several days until replacements arrived from the supplier.

The drawings of the equipment did not arrive when expected. The electrical contractor was threatening to stop all his underground rough-in until the information was received. Stopping all the work would have had a serious impact on the schedule. The team met on-site to review what information was still missing. Based on this information, the project manager decided to install junction boxes at the perimeter of the equipment rooms so that a majority of the work could continue, leaving the rooms to be roughed in at a later date.

The plumbing contractor was told to install 1.6 gallons-per-flush toilets in the building. After the original decision to use these toilets had been made, the owner hired a new sustainability manager, who wanted lower-flow toilets instead. There were concerns with the functionality of the lower-flow toilets, so the project manager recommended installing a mock-up of each type of toilet. After testing the mock-up, everyone was in agreement on the preferred fixture. Using the mock-up to resolve the concerns allowed them to avoid a schedule impact.

Why is it crucial to take fast action to resolve such problems? Due to the organizational structure of projects, in which tasks are tightly interconnected, when unexpected events affect one task, many other interdependent tasks may also be quickly impacted. For example, affected contractors may decide to move their workforces to other projects, making it difficult to bring them back on time once the problem is resolved.

To be successful in practicing responsive agility, a project manager must operate within an organizational culture that acknowledges the unavoidability of unexpected events. According to Steve Kerr, Chief Learning Officer of General Electric, “The future is moving so quickly that you can’t anticipate it…. We have put a tremendous emphasis on quick response…. We will continue to be surprised, but we won’t be surprised that we are surprised.”


1.                   Muirhead, B. and Simon, W.L. High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. 1999, New York: HarperBusiness: p. 193.

2.                   Malhotra, Y. “Knowledge management for organizational white waters: an ecological framework.Knowledge Management 1999; 2(1): p. 18-21.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making

 (Image: free use under CreativeCommons, no attribution required)

Jim Wink, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, reported that his team had encountered over 200 unexpected events during the life of a schedule-driven project.1 The sources of such events may vary from one case to the next, common examples being design errors, the failure of a contractor to show up, the bankruptcy of a supplier, and changes in the customers' specifications. Indeed, recent research repeatedly stresses that the key challenge facing the project manager in our present era of high uncertainty is coping with numerous unexpected events.  In turn, disseminating information frequently and routinely is probably one of the most effective means for project managers to ameliorate the negative impacts of such unexpected events. 

Fredrick Brooks, best known as the “father of the IBM System/360,” argued that “the project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making.2 Hugh Woodward, a project manager from Procter & Gamble, reached a similar conclusion through trial and error. His assignment was to secure an environmental permit for a new product.  While several groups of people distributed over a wide geographic area were involved in the project, the product was fairly routine, the participants involved had some experience working with each other, and the responsibility of each participant was clarified in a preliminary planning meeting which generated a detailed list of action steps and responsibilities. No hitches were expected. 

Yet the schedule was slipping continually. A second planning process was initiated with all involved parties, resulting in a revised plan. Action steps, responsibilities, and deadlines were drawn. Assurances were given that the process flowsheet was now stable and that the formulated strategy for approaching the state regulators was valid.   Yet within days, the schedule was slipping again! 

The solution was simple. Hugh initiated weekly video conferences with all the key participants meeting to share the latest information and to assess the project's status. Through these weekly virtual meetings, the team members were able to quickly collect missing information, identify changes, and solve problems as they were still emerging. It turned out that these weekly video conferences were all that was needed to assure the smooth progress of the project.3

What matters is not only the frequency of the communication but also the spirit of it.

NASA’s Tony Schoenfelder describes some of the communication practices employed by John Hodge, the first leader of the Space Station Task Force:

Hodge combined a number of practices and innovations that led to a unique and uninhibited atmosphere. Each day started at 8:15 AM with an unstructured 15-minute all-hands stand-up meeting. Only those who had something important to say took the floor, while everyone else crowded into the office or hallway to listen. It turned out to be a useful device in that it not only conveyed information, but also physically reunited the team each morning to reinforce the spirit of camaraderie and the sense of shared purpose.… Hodge didn’t believe in secrets. He was completely open with the staff. What he knew, they knew. Members appreciated this unusual candor and reciprocated by keeping him and the leadership well informed…. Hodge was liable to pop up unannounced anywhere at anytime…. He not only got to know each person as a person, but also received an unfiltered heads-up as to what was going on.4

Matt Peterson, at the Boldt Construction Company, used a similar practice.  All on-site team members (the superintendent, field engineers, project coordinator, safety officer, etc.) participated in “daily 10-minute huddles.” Matt reported that these informal morning meetings not only ensured that the team members understood one another’s current workloads and constraints, but often enabled them to identify and resolve conflicting priorities before they became problems.

But effective communication should not be limited to the project's team. Insufficient communication with the client is one of the more prevalent causes for unexpected changes. Yet, project managers tend to communicate with their clients primarily at the early stages of the project, while the project’s requirements are first formulated, saving subsequent communication only for crisis moments. Don Margolies, a NASA project manager based in Maryland, set up a schedule to talk on the phone every week with his client, Dr. Edward Stone, who was based in California. As reported by Don, "In the early stages of the project, much of what was about to unfold was still up in the air. You might say the spacecraft itself was about the only thing not in the air." Yet, they stuck to their weekly schedule and talked over the phone even if it meant just reporting the weather. The benefits of these routine and brief weekly phone calls became evident more than a few times during the project. Their ability, for example, to identify in advance possible cost overruns, enabled them ultimately to complete the $140 million project at $30 million under budget!5

Effective communication can thus reduce costs, prevent problems, and help create a cohesive team. Indeed, disseminating information frequently and routinely contributes to both flexibility and stability. That is, the team’s ability to adapt and solve problems as soon as they occur enables it to quickly regain stability. It therefore behooves the project manager to prioritize communication for the benefit of the team and the project.



1.        Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J. Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. 2000, New York: John Wiley & Sons: p. 76-8.

2.        Brooks Jr, F.P. The Mythical Man-Month. 1995, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley: p. 40.

3.        Laufer, A., Volkman, R.C., Davenport, G.W., and Terry, S. In Quest of Project Excellence through Stories. 1994, Cincinnati, OH: Procter and Gamble.

4.        Schoenfelder, T.E. The idyllic workplace. Ask Magazine 2002; 7: p. 22-26.

5.        Laufer, A., Post, T., and Hoffman, E.J. Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. 2005, Washington, DC: The NASA History Series: p. 31.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Evolving Planning: The Rolling Wave Approach for Project Planning

Planning is a decision-making process whereby interdependent decisions are integrated into a system of decisions. What makes effective planning particularly challenging is that it entails an anticipatory process, as decisions are made on future actions and how to perform them. However, in today’s dynamic environment, characterized by frequent unexpected events and volatile information, anticipation becomes very difficult, and the key question faced by the project team is how far in advance of implementation they should make their decisions. Making them early provides more time to develop and coordinate these decisions with other interrelated decisions, and in general, to be better prepared for implementation. However, if decisions are made too early, there is a high probability that the changes that will take place between the time of decision making and the time of implementation will require that the decisions be modified. 

To cope with these conflicting considerations, project managers employ a “rolling wave” approach to planning. Thus, they develop plans in waves as the project unfolds and information becomes more reliable. They help develop Action Plans, which are detailed short-term plans with a one-to-two-week time horizon, usually the responsibility of low-level supervisors. Medium-term plans (e.g., 90-day Look-Ahead Plans) are less detailed in comparison, typically with a time horizon of two to six months. Being at the hub of internal and external project information, the project manager is in the best position to lead the periodic updating of the medium-term plans. Finally, long-term plans (Master Plans), cover the duration of the entire project and are quite general, presenting only aggregate activities. Through the rolling wave approach, project managers can ensure short-term stability and long-term flexibility (see Figure 1). 

 Fig. 1: Influence of planning horizon on degree of detail

This style of planning does not imply that decisions should be arbitrarily “put off until later.” Rather, it is an act of deliberately splitting off those planning aspects that can be acted upon more opportunely in the future. By applying this approach, two extreme situations are avoided. The first is the preparation of overly detailed plans too soon, which may lead to rapid obsolescence because some decisions are based on information provided by intelligent guesses rather than on reliable data. This is particularly the case when the project suffers from a high degree of uncertainty. The other extreme situation is delaying the planning until all the information is complete and stable. In both cases, project effectiveness will suffer. 

The benefits of this planning approach go beyond offering stable plans. When adopting this planning method, the preparation of plan updates shifts from the full time professional scheduler, who remains responsible primarily for the Master Plan, to the project manager and his/her team who now may assume responsibility for the short-term Action Plans, as well as for the mid-term plans. This approach may enhance the involvement of the entire team in the project planning process, creating a sense of ownership and promoting greater responsiveness to change.

Ray Morgan, the project manager of Pathfinder, a solar-powered airplane, used the short- and mid-term schedule as a means not only for communicating the overall picture of what needed to be done, when, and why; but also for actively engaging the entire team in updating and using their plans. He, therefore, put a graphic depiction of the schedule on the side of a large container right in the hangar, next to the flight test crew and the airplane. The team was encouraged not simply to adhere to the original plan but to add and delete tasks interactively. These changes were incorporated into a computer model and were reprinted once or twice a week during flight tests. The team often referred back to the chart to help redefine the importance of a current task and to see how it fit into “the big picture.” Thus, the plans resulting from the on-going learning was owned by the team.